Editors' Note: We're thrilled to introduce our new writing fellow Tim Fernholz. His work has been published by The New Republic, The Nation, American Lawyer, and the Washington City Paper. He is also a contributing writer at Campus Progress.
After Barack Obama opted out of public financing, it was a little worrisome to see John McCain achieve fundraising parity in May. Want another scare? Try this profile of Sheldon Adelson, the overweening gambling czar whose goal in life is literally buying influence. For example, this attempt to bribe Democratic Representative Shelley Berkley:
“I have unique personal knowledge of how Mr. Adelson seeks to dominate politics and public policy through the raw power of money. Shortly before I was fired from the Sands by Mr. Adelson in 1997, he made me an offer. It was a bizarre proposition, but it was simple and it was direct. He told me if I would switch from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party he would provide all the campaign funding I would need to run for Congress.” Berkley won her first race by only three percentage points. In 2006, she won a fifth term with sixty-five per cent of the vote, and today is a popular representative with a seemingly safe district; but Adelson has continued to try to defeat her.
Do you need a better argument for Obama's choice? Adelson, a principal funder behind conservative 527 Freedom's Watch and the Republican Jewish Committee (which has already launched attacks against Obama), can pump millions of dollars into stopping the Senator's campaign. If Obama hadn't opted out of public financing, his ability to respond in kind would be severely limited (See Kerry, John). These groups could even get away with coordinating with the Republican campaign as long as they pay a fine a few years later. Hey, as long as you win, right? Meanwhile, McCain has gone from complaining about 527s to all but winking at their activities.
Neither strategy -- abandoning public financing or waving it like a flag while your supporters deploy unregulated money -- is ideal. Without a better system, there's no way to be completely virtuous.